I’m afraid to admit it, but…

16 06 2012

there is one pop artist that is immensely popular now that I think has a boatload of talent and genuine soul: Bruno Mars.

Does he sing the kind of songs I generally like?  No.  One of my gripes, though, about the vast majority of the pop mega-stars of the last 10-15 years — beyond the songs being shallow and sounding the same — is that many don’t seem genuine.  They seem manufactured.  They’re, quite often, pretty people with as much musical sincerity and credibility as The Monkees.  Producers have been drowning them in Auto-Tune, either because they can’t really sing or to give them the same sound as the rest of their peers.

Bruno, to me, seems to be the exception.  To be clear, I’m not saying his songs stand up to the works of these guys, but when I hear him I get a Smokey Robinson or even Marvin Gaye vibe.  I think, “Hey, this guy really frickin’ sings!”  I think there’s a bit of that in Kelly Clarkson as well, but this guy, I think, is the best to come along in the last few years.


The new originals (Part 1)

1 07 2011

My oh-so-clever title comes from a bit in This Is Spinal Tap.  One of the fictional band’s early incarnations was called The Originals.  But the name was taken, so the band changed its name to The New Originals.  That little joke best sums up how I would describe those artists that find that sweet spot between sounding unique but borrowing heavily from the past.

You can count them on two hands.  Maybe you’d have to count with your toes.  There aren’t many, but they’re out there.   Some singers and musicians have the knack for taking an old sound and making it entirely their own.  They don’t sound derivative.  They don’t sound like a cover or tribute artist.  They’re not blatant ripoffs.  At the same time, they sound entirely familiar.  Part of their appeal is that they have captured the best of what came before them.

Over the years, I’ve come to love some of these performers.  I recognized that they were heavily influenced by older styles or musicians, but I never understood that I liked them as much for the fresh spin they were able to put on the old stuff.  Some of these artists have been doing this seemingly forever and others are new to the game.   Here are the new originals that I like best:

  • Stray Cats — I grew up listening to 50’s music.  I was never lucky enough to hear pure rockabilly, but I heard enough old-time rock to know what rockabilly should sound like.  Along came Stray Cats, coming somewhere out of the 50’s revival of the late 70’s (think: Grease, “Happy Days,” “Laverne & Shirley,” Sha-na-na’s TV show) and the punk scene.  They had the balls of a punk band but the soul of guys like Gene Vincent and Carl Perkins.  What was original about them was. . . well. . . they just had their own style.  It can’t be stated much clearer than that.  Brian Setzer also brought something of a crooning vocal style to throw into the punk-abilly mix.  While they were throwbacks, they were just themselves.  They can’t be accused of stealing any single artists style but no one has been able to imitate them.
  • Raphael Saadiq — I admit up front, I’m just discovering his music.  I remember Tony! Toni! Tone! but I had no idea who he was or even that he was still in the music business.  But I heard talk about his newest album and got my hands on his last one, The Way I See It.  I’m blown away.  His voice: amazing.  The sound: it could have been recorded at the Motown studios in Detroit 40 years ago.  The fell: old school R&B.  The lyrics: solid.  While he’s definitely a traditional R & B artist, I don’t think he could be fairly accused of unoriginality.  In a sea of crap music, he has made fresh again a sound older than most of his fans.
  • Brian Setzer — Since his Stray Cats days, Brian has wandered back and forth between rock-infused big band or swing and rockabilly, but his most notable solo work has been with the Brian Setzer Orchestra.  Out of all the so-called new originals I like, he has admittedly been the most derivative.   He’s covered swing and rock standards as well as old Stray Cats tunes.  Where he gets marks for originality is that he made swing and big band sound like a new style.  His sound, like grunge, felt like it was born in its own time, even though it was not.  It fit its era for reasons I can’t quite explain.   He was also largely responsible for launching the swing revival in both music and dance.  Bands like Squirrel Nut Zippers and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy should pay royalties to him for having helped (re)popularize the style.  (Note: I’m not claiming Setzer/BSO was first in time, just early, highly influential and fresh.)
  • Young Veins — From the outset, understand that I’m not saying these guys have had any significant impact on the music business.  I only know one other person that likes them (and he only knows of them through me.)   Two of the guys, Ryan Ross and Jon Walker, left Panic! At the Disco to form Young Veins, probably doing more to upset Panic! fans than to generate positive buzz about the new band.  But their album, Take a Vacation, sounds like it was recorded in 1965.  It’s 4 parts Kinks, 1 part Beach Boys.  It’s so Kinks-esque that I’m sure some would call it a rip-off.  It’s arguable.  I felt, when I heard it, that YV had managed to capture a Kinks-like groove but make it their own.  It certainly isn’t Kinks for the 2000’s.  Their sound is all 1960’s.  For my money, it lands in that sweet spot between borrowing too much and not borrowing enough.

Here’s the thing: at least in the world of pop/rock or R&B, there is nothing truly original.  The foundations were laid long ago and artists can’t play in those styles without sounding like somebody.  It just can’t be done anymore.  As Beastie Boys once said, “Only 12 notes a man can play.”  So whether something sounds fresh depends on whether the artist can trick you into feeling like you’re getting something uniquely his or hers.  These performers, in my opinion, have done that to some degree.

To be continued…

Taking me back to my youth

26 05 2010

I’ve always loved music.  By the age of 4 or 5, I was a pretty ardent Beatles fan.  I cut my teeth on “oldies” on the radio, Olivia Newton John, Linda Ronstadt and other soft rock, with some country sprinkled in.  But my musical coming-of-age, if you will, was during the early days of MTV.  While we didn’t have MTV in our house — my mom didn’t get cable TV until the late 90’s — I watched it at other people’s homes.  MTV made music videos, as a medium, explode across the rest of TV.  Anyone remember “Friday Night Videos”?  More than that, MTV, at least I would argue, helped spread fresh music back through FM radio.  Bands that had big video hits seemed to be able to make radio hits out of songs that probably wouldn’t have gotten much airplay otherwise.

What that whole period — 1982 through 1985 — did for me was expose me to all kinds of styles.  Hard rock and heavy metal were starting to explode, hitting something of an apex with the success of the countless hairbands (which happily ended when “Grunge” took over in the early 90’s.)  Punk morphed into a more listener-friendly style: New Wave.  Rap (the nice kind that doesn’t talk about murder and drugs) also took off like a rocket.

I wasn’t necessarily into New Wave.  In fact, I was more of a rocker.  Van Halen was my favorite band back then.  But New Wave, then and now, defined the sound of that period.  Just like the Beatles or the Yardbirds take Baby Boomers back to the mid-60’s or Elvis and Buddy Holly take the previous generation back to the mid to late 50’s, New Wave takes me back the early to mid 80’s.  Much of what is called “80’s music” these days is really the New Wave, which ranged from dark and edgy (The Cure) to pop (Soft Cell.)

I can hear the Beatles and not think of the 60’s or hear the Bee Gees and not think of the disco movement of the 70’s.  But I almost cannot separate New Wave from that period.  I can’t hear it in a vacuum.

All that said, this song, which, ironically, is from 2009, takes me right back to that period.  I hear it a few times a week at the gym and I flash back — not necessarily in thought but in feeling — to 1983.   It’s a pretty catchy song.  I wish I had written or performed it.

What I’ve been trying to tell people for years but no one will listen

17 08 2009

Lots of people love the Beatles. Most people that like rock at all at least appreciate them. In my experience, except for the most die-hard Beatles fans, their work before 1967 gets little or no recognition for it’s greatness. I still see or hear people call the early Beatles a “boy band” or “bubble gum pop,” but that notion is seriously flawed.

I just read this bit in the August 2009 edition of  The Word magazine, from an article called “Why the Beatles are Underrated.” About the Beatles work between 1963 and 1966, the writer says:

While that second three-year career (1967 to 1970) is not without its delights, the first period was actually when their collective genius was operating at full tilt. To fully appreciate it from the vantage point of 2009 we have to shrug off our infatuation with fashionable gloom and shed the illusion that true artists are all complex and impenetrable. We must accept the fact that the greatest pop group of them all didn’t consider it beneath them to make their records for 14-year-old girls. When they made their classic records the false opposition between rock and pop hadn’t been invented. This wall between the two has been the refuge of scoundrels and snobs ever since. To appreciate why we still underrate the Beatles you have to shrug off that prejudice and travel back to 1963, when they were far from a done deal.

That about sums it up. The Beatles were a pop band, but all that meant is that they played popular music, as opposed to classical, jazz, pure blues, you name it. Rock was (and is) a form of pop music. Rock was pop. Pop was rock. The Beatles were rock. Get it? It’s that simple.


Albarn staring at the sun

20 02 2009

My mp3 player on shuffle played U2’s “Staring at the Sun” just as I lay back on the bench to do my skull crushers.  I hadn’t heard the song in a long time as it has been buried behind thousands of other songs on my player.  “Gosh, what does this first verse sound like?  This is really familiar.”

It bothered me the rest of morning at the gym, the nagging war in the mind between a lost memory and the battle to reclaim it.

Then it hit me.  The verse sounds just like part of one of Damon Albarn’s songs. I was pretty sure it wasn’t from a Blur song, so when I got to work today, I started going through Gorillaz tunes.  Sure enough, the song I was thinking of was “Feel Good, Inc.”  I’m not sure whether it is a verse of that song — there are so many bits to it — but it kicks in about 1:10 into the song, the bit that starts “Windmill, windmill…”

The first verse of “Staring at the Sun”

Summer stretching on the grass… summer dresses pass
In the shade of a willow tree creeps a crawling over me
Over me and over you stuck together with God’s glue
It’s going to get stickier too…
It’s been a long hot summer
let’s go undercover
Don’t try too hard to think… don’t think at all

The lifted portion of “Feel Good, Inc.” is

Windmill, Windmill for the land.
Love forever hand in hand
Take it all in on your strife
It is sinking, falling down
Love forever love is free
Let’s turn forever you and me
Windmill, windmill for the land
Is everybody in?

Mind you, I don’t think this is some sort of blatant rip off.  But George Harrison was sued (successfully) for a less blatant borrowing of “He’s So Fine.”

Both of these songs are great.  I like these twin verses the best.